Increasing Diversity in Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying

At the time of writing, Andy Kitkowski at Kotodama Heavy Industries is running a Kickstarter for the English translation of Shinobgami, a Japanese role-playing game about ninja battles. (You still have time to back it!) In the description, he emphasises that he has recruited a very diverse array of authors, including many from outside the USA, to work on expanding the game. Given that I have previously complained about the interpretation of “diversity” as “multi-colored Americans”, you would think that I’d be over-joyed about this. However, it still made me a bit uncomfortable, and that led me to think about why.

When it comes to writing in the pen-and-paper RPG industry, I am in a privileged position. I have written for just about all of the major companies, been Line Editor for an important RPG (Ars Magica) for 14 years, and won both an ENnie and Origins Award. Nevertheless, I think my concern is based on my experience.

The reason given for increasing the diversity of writers in TRPGs (table-top, as opposed to computers) is that it is good to increase the range of voices in the industry. Nobody is foolish enough to suggest that it will directly improve the overall social position of minorities; indeed, given that TRPG writing is socially and economically marginal, you could argue that minorities should be actively discouraged from getting involved, because it would only reinforce their marginality. However, being hired by a company run by white dudes does not, in fact, let you speak with your own voice in the industry.

This is true even if you are (like me) a white dude. Ten years ago, Green Ronin hired me to work on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a teenager, so I was very happy to get the job. However, as I worked on it, and read Blue Rose, which Green Ronin released around the same time, I realised that I would much rather have been working on the latter game. The darkness and cynical violence of WFRP was not really the sort of thing I wanted to write, and the much more optimistic and hopeful tone of Blue Rose suited me much better. Nevertheless, I had signed on to write WFRP, so that’s what I did, and it was a very good experience, as well as the realisation of a teenage dream.

Further, a little earlier I became Ars Magica Line Editor, something else I had dreamed of as a teenager. (I have a good record of my teenage dreams coming true; dream medium size!) You might think that, as Line Editor, I would be able to do exactly what I wanted with the game. That was certainly true to a much greater extent than with WFRP. Ars Magica is now a lot closer to the sort of game I really want to write than it was when I started, and it started pretty close. Even so, there is still a gap, and that is one reason why I am retiring as Ars Magica Line Editor, and working on Kannagara. The existence of the game’s history, and the requirements (minimal though they were) imposed by Atlas Games, meant that I couldn’t fully express what I wanted to say.

If this is true for me, someone who is almost as privileged as it is possible to be within the business (I’m only missing “American” to have the full set), then how much more true is it going to be of members of a group that has not had a significant presence in the past? They are presumably going to feel even less able than I was to challenge instructions from editors and publishers and take things in the direction they want.

In other words, if we really want to hear the voices of minorities in the TRPG industry, they need to be running their own companies.

Fortunately, this is a realistic approach. There does seem to be a tendency to assimilate the TRPG and CRPG worlds, but they are completely different. A member of a minority cannot simply found their own development house to produce the next Witcher. It is not practical. In TRPGs, however, anyone can found a publishing house, and put their work on DriveThru. That is enough to become what passes for a success in this business, if your work is good enough.

Thus, we should really be encouraging members of underrepresented groups to start their own companies, and helping them to do so. Hiring them to write our games doesn’t really solve the problem, and that’s what made me uncomfortable about Shinobigami.

However, that doesn’t mean my discomfort was justified. Writing TRPGs is not easy, and publishing them is even harder. Doing it successfully without any experience, or contacts, in the industry might actually be as hard as founding your own triple-A CRPG studio. As an initial stage, we should be helping people from outside the mainstream to get that experience, by hiring them to write our games. The experience of writing things that are not really what they want to say will no doubt help them to work out what they do want to say, just like it helped me. Thus, the conclusion of thinking things through is that Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing exactly the right thing. Translating foreign works is itself a very important way to increase the diversity of voices, and giving a wider range of people that first step up onto the ladder will work the same way in the long term.

Nevertheless, it is only a first step. If we start to think that this solves the problem, then I think we are making a serious mistake. What else should we do?

The first thing is that the industry should be supportive of new publishers. Fortunately, it is. I also see very little evidence of prejudice in the people who are supported, beyond the in-group tendency to support people who have contacts and a track record in the business. That, of course, is why it is important to increase the diversity of the people we are hiring. Furthermore, even if there are people in the industry with prejudices (which, statistically, is very likely), they are not in a position to deny access. A new publisher needs someone to help them, but does not need everyone to help them. Unless a campaign could be mounted to exclude them on the basis of their race, gender, or national origin, the existence of a handful of prejudiced people is unlikely to be an important, practical problem. And I cannot see such a campaign gaining any traction.

I do still have a reason for concern, though. People from historically excluded groups might be worried that they will face a campaign to exclude them because of what they want to say. Consider Tenra Bansho Zero, another Japanese game translated by Kotodama Heavy Industries. The portrayal of Shinto in TBZ is, of course, exaggerated and fictionalised, like everything else in the game. It is, however, an exaggerated and fictionalised version of a widespread misunderstanding of Shinto that its practitioners find deeply irritating, at best, and actively offensive, at worst. (I’m at the “deeply irritated” end of the scale.) This is an accurate translation of the portrayal in Japanese (actually, I’ve just checked the English translation to make sure it is the same, because I’ve only read the Japanese), and thus an accurate portrayal of the voice of the author, but there is a tendency in role-playing to criticise inaccurate and negative portrayals of religions that have not been historically dominant in Anglo-American culture, in quite vociferous terms.

Now imagine a Japanese author who wants to publish a TRPG set in African-American culture. (This is not, in fact, wildly implausible, as I understand it.) Those of us who read both English and Japanese, and are familiar with both Japanese and US culture, know that there is a pleasing symmetry between US portrayals of Japan and Japanese portrayals of the US. The chances that a Japanese TRPG portraying African-American culture would strike African-Americans as a nuanced and accurate depiction are slim to none.

We can consider an even more extreme case. Suppose that a Somalian author writes a game that reinforces traditional gender roles, portrays homosexuality as wrong, and gives mechanical penalties to female characters who have not been subjected to FGM.

In these cases, I think that a campaign could, and probably would, be mounted to exclude these voices on the grounds that “we” (members of the dominant culture) do not like or agree with what they are saying. This campaign would include calls for boycotts, and for the permanent ostracism of the authors, as well as personal attacks on the authors.

Now, people might object that, of course, it’s only when WhiCH (white, cis, heterosexual) men say that sort of thing that we need to get angry, but I don’t think they will. Even so, that is beside the point. Anyone who knows enough about the TRPG industry to have a realistic chance of being a successful publisher also knows about this tendency. They know that its targets are a little hard to predict, but that there are particular groups whom it is very risky to portray in a way that they do not like, and that writing about anything other than what this public regards as “your” culture is dangerous. These people, whom we want to bring new and different voices to our industry, do not have the backing and confidence to take on such a backlash, by definition. If someone has enough confidence to take on a large scale internet backlash, they have enough confidence to break into TRPGs without any help from anyone, with trial and error and sheer dogged persistence. The people whom we ought to be supporting will be intimidated by the possibility of such a reaction to their work.

Right now, I think this is the biggest obstacle to increasing the diversity of voices in TRPGs. A diversity of voices will, naturally, want to say a diversity of things and take diverse positions, but there is a strong movement to only accept new voices if they say what “we” think they should be saying. There are other obstacles, but a wide range of people are working hard to reduce them. On the other hand, it seems to me that many people are actively working to make this obstacle bigger.

There is room for a debate here. Maybe diversity is less important than ensuring ideological correctness. As you might guess from the way I chose to phrase that, I don’t think so. I think that we should be working to make the hobby more tolerant of a diversity of opinions, including opinions that we, personally, find unpleasant and offensive, because people from other cultures are extremely unlikely to share all of our opinions on anything. I do not think that it is obvious how we should respond when we strongly disagree, but I do think it is obvious that we should not respond by threatening boycotts and attempting to exclude people from the market.

My conclusion, then, is that I was wrong to feel uncomfortable about what Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing. It is an essential step in opening up the TRPG hobby and industry to genuinely diverse voices, and when that step has been taken, I think that we already see a lot of the support necessary to make that diversity a reality. However, if we want the hobby to be genuinely inclusive, we need to find a better way to deal with people with whom we strongly disagree.

Posted in Roleplaying.

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